Time to reap what I sow.
I participated in a few barrel picks last year. Despite the selections being made some months apart, the timing of the bottlings coincided, and I received my allocations all at once. Beyond the exhilarating sight of nearly two dozen bottles showing up on my doorstep, there was a slight nervousness that began to creep in.
I am a barrel pick skeptic, which should be well known to repeated readers of my reviews here. Some barrel picks are truly exceptional, which keeps me interested in the category generally. On the other hand, a lot of barrel picks are about equivalent in quality to their reference expressions. This varies by distillery; Buffalo Trace is infamous for allowing only “on-profile” barrels into their selection program, which keeps the deviation from the mean fairly tight. Four Roses, on the other hand, offers the ability to select from among the 10 different recipe codes. In my experience, the dispersion of the aromatic and flavor profiles among these picks is significantly greater.
The other problem is that barrel picks are like children: everyone thinks theirs is at least above average, if not truly exceptional. I could chalk this up to ego and self-promotion, but I’m more charitably inclined. Having participated in both virtual and in-situ barrel picks, the latter is an experience infused with romantic associations that can’t help but bias the selectors. Stepping into the rickhouse, smelling the musty air, and watching the whiskey get pulled from the barrel with a copper thief are all memories that imprint themselves indelibly. How could those special feelings not get mentally transferred to the chosen whiskey, making it seem better than it might be judged by an impartial taster?
I’m not arrogant enough to claim to be above this type of subconscious influence. At best, I can try to be more self-reflective, attempting to eliminate my own preconceptions about the relative quality of the picks ascribed to me. Philosophically, this approach is at the heart of what we do here at Malt; we try to maintain objectivity, even in instances when there is a direct (always disclosed) or indirect source of potential bias. But, how best to put this ideal into practice?
A comparison between similar picks – mine vs. those of others – seems like the most sensible approach. Given the aforementioned preponderance of pedestrian picks out there, it would be easy to find some limp competition and summarily crown myself a superior selector. Rather, I’m more interested in some proper competition; ideally, the “other” pick comes from an experienced taster with a trained palate.
Given that “pick madness” makes it increasingly difficult to lay hands on barrel picks (particularly among the more desirable expressions, among which I’d count the subjects of today’s review), my ability to even assemble the materials from among the whiskeys at hand is far from a sure thing.
Fortunately, Brett Atlas offered me a bottle of his “For Friends Only” selection of Elijah Craig. Brett was my introduction to the Bourbon Crusaders, and I count him as a close friend. He was actually in attendance on the day of the Bourbon Crusaders Elijah Craig pick but, due to COVID restrictions, chose to sit out the pick so that someone else could have one of the four seats. So, while my personal association with him will not free me of bias, I’m happy to have the selection of an experienced bourbon aficionado against which to measure my pick. Incidentally, Brett designed both the sticker for his own selection, as well as the one for our Bourbon Crusaders pick.
This was barreled 2/2/2012 and bottled on 1/26/2022, a week shy of its 10th birthday. From floor 7 of Deatsville Rickhouse CC, this was selected at 140.2 proof (70.1% ABV) but was bottled at 139.5 proof (69.75% ABV). I paid Brett $98 for a bottle, plus shipping.
Elijah Craig Private Barrel #6177586 – Review
Color: Ruby hued medium-dark chestnut.
On the nose: Initially, this has the most ebulliently fruity nose I can recall on a barrel proof Elijah Craig expression. The whiskey positively leaps out of the glass with a gorgeous note of a ripe cherry dipped in the sweetest and creamiest milk chocolate imaginable. There are some herbal accents of tarragon and anise that play against a sweetly baked scent of honey graham cracker. There’s an acetone-like topnote that acts as a reminder of the high ABV of this barrel, though some time in the glass allows this to recede in favor of… there it is! The hallmark Heaven Hill penny and clementine notes step to the fore. This practically begs for the first sip.
In the mouth: This has a drying intensity at first; bypassing the tip of the tongue, it feels as though it zips straight up to the roof of the mouth and lodges there. There’s a zesty and off-bitter citric flavor of kumquats. This has a moment of textural smoothness right in the middle of the tongue that comes as a noteworthy surprise. The midpalate is a marriage of woody elements combined with an airy sweetness of confectioner’s sugar. The wood asserts itself more as this moves toward the back of the mouth; the tannins become more astringent and grainy, and this thins out somewhat in terms of body. There’s a vanishing flavor of red pepper hot sauce as this recedes, leaving a chalky minerality to coat the tongue and the roof of the mouth as the whiskey lingers.
Based on the nose alone, this would have bested not only my barrel pick, but probably every other whiskey I have tasted in the past year. That first fruity note was a thing of beauty, with a richness and an intensity I seldom encounter outside the better releases of George T. Stagg. I was surprised at how lean this tacked on the palate in comparison. I liked that the front of the mouth kept me guessing with some profound textural shifts, but it all leaned out a bit too much for my preferences on the finish.
Keeping that in context: this is still excellent, enthralling bourbon of the type I spend most of my whiskey-hunting time trying to seek out. My few complaints are mostly pedantic nitpicking of the type that quickly dissipates when I’m able to forget my cares and share whiskey with friends. In total, and considering the relatively premium price I’m scoring this solidly above average.
Now for the moment of truth. This is the barrel I selected as part of my trip to Bardstown with the Bourbon Crusaders. Barreled on 4/20/2011 and selected on 8/17/2021, this was bottled at the age of 10 years. Barrel proof on selection was 138.9 (69.45% ABV) but, by the time this was bottled, the proof dropped to 136.6 (68.3%). This was a “short barrel;” only 72 bottles were produced. I paid $70 plus shipping for my bottle, which is actually below what Elijah Craig Barrel Proof batches sell for in my area.
Elijah Craig Private Barrel #6059727 – Review
Color: Medium-dark orangey-amber.
On the nose: Altogether more autumnal than its predecessor, this presents a first whiff of fallen leaves and dried firewood. This is possessed of a more earthy character; I am getting the sense of mineral-rich marl of the type evident in very mature wine from Barbaresco. There’s a subtle herbal accent of rosemary, as well as a note of smoked beef brisket and pork shoulder. Ripe navel orange is the main fruity note, though I also get richer and darker fruit aromas of figs. The Heaven Hill metallic accent is not as pronounced on this one; it lingers late on the nose, coming across as less forceful but more austere and taciturn.
In the mouth: That austerity and minerality is evident in a first, mouth-puckering kiss of steel and stone. This transitions to a note of cola as the whiskey moves toward the center of the tongue. In the middle of the mouth, these tighter flavors unwind to reveal a core of sour cherry with an accent of espresso bean. This takes on an almost effervescent texture and a flavor reminiscent of cherry cola as it moves toward the back of the mouth. There, the drying stony notes once again take hold, with ephemeral flavors of sarsaparilla, mint leaf, and pine bough crawling back over the tongue, gums, and roof of the mouth.
This is a specific style of bourbon, one that I personally enjoy. It tends toward the darker and drier end of the aroma and flavor spectrum, particularly on the nose, which contrasts with the extroverted fruitiness of the previous example. What tips the scales for me is the palate, and particularly the mouthfeel. The metamorphosis from the very serious metallic and mineralic notes to the fruit, and again to the uncanny cherry cola sensation is a surprising, even to a guy who thought that whiskey didn’t have very many surprises left to offer. Combined with the below market price, and I feel compelled to rate this just a notch below perfection.
Do all the discounting of that evaluation that you want; I would do the same, if I were in your shoes. It should come as no surprise that I very much like a whiskey that I personally selected, from one of my favorite distilleries. How could I not?
I haven’t written this review to enhance my own credibility, nor to bolster the perception of this whiskey (all 72 bottles were spoken for by Bourbon Crusaders; none will be available for retail sale). Rather, I’m going to take what’s left of this bottle and make sure it gets into the hands of as many folks as possible. Whether they like it as much as I do (or don’t), I’d encourage you to weight their opinion more heavily than mine.
In a sense, I’m throwing up my hands with regards to being able to “objectively” (heavy emphasis on quotation marks) evaluate my own selections. That’s OK; I don’t do very many and the ones I do, I tend to enjoy. Combine that the warm feelings of friendship and camaraderie, and I guess I’m just as susceptible to maudlin sentimentality as anyone else picking a barrel. I’m satisfied that this pair are each special – at least to me – in their own ways… you know, like every barrel pick.